Tag Archives: dissent

Signs of Campus Dissent in Madison

Not surprisingly, the University of Wisconsin at Madison has been deeply affected by the important labor dispute that has consumed the state, its capitol, and the nation the last two weeks. Passions are high, especially over the part of Governor Scott Walker’s budget proposal that will drastically limit collective bargaining by state employees covered by unions. The budget proposal also requires public employees to contribute substantially more to their healthcare and pensions. But the collective bargaining provision has generated the most heat.

Libertarian thinker Alvaro Vargos Llosa has remarked that Wisconsin’s debate over collective bargaining is of “planetary” significance, while Walter Russell Mead of The American Interest claims that the standoff constitutes a “watershed” event in American history, as the nation vies over the size and scope of public finances.

At an overflow law school forum on the issue on February 23, I stated that the conflict is an example of what the great political scientist Samuel Huntington called “creedal passion” in American Politics and the Promise of Disharmony. Creedal passion involves the intense conflict that periodically erupts over which fundamental values will shape public policy and philosophy.  As Huntington wrote, “The history of American politics is the repetition of new beginnings and flawed outcomes, promise and disillusion, reform and reaction. American history is the history of the efforts of groups to promote their interests by realizing American ideals.” In the Wisconsin case, the creedal debate concerns the proper balance and arrangement between the private and public sectors in an era of crippling debt.

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The End of Tenure and the Fate of Dissent

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a story this week by Robin Wilson entitled “Tenure, RIP: What the Vanishing Status Means for the Future of Education”. It announces a study by the U.S. Dept of Education due out in the fall covering employment in higher education. Its findings regarding tenure are dire:

Over just three decades, the proportion of college instructors who are tenured or on the tenure track plummeted: from 57 percent in 1975 to 31 percent in 2007. The new report is expected to show that that proportion fell even further in 2009. If you add graduate teaching assistants to the mix, those with some kind of tenure status represent a mere quarter of all instructors.

In fact, at many for-profit institutions and two-year colleges, tenure is “a completely foreign concept.” Generally, the decline of tenure hasn’t happened through direct edict, but rather through a slow process of personnel change. As tenured faculty members have retired, they haven’t been replaced. As schools and departments have grown, they have hired adjuncts and graduate students to handle crowded classrooms, not new tenure-track professors.

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Three Groupthink Conferences—No Dissenters Please

Several years ago, in a seminal Chronicle of Higher Education essay, Mark Bauerlein lamented a campus in which “the simple trappings of deliberation make academics think that they’ve reached an opinion through reasoned debate—instead of, in part, through an irrational social dynamic. The opinion takes on the status of a norm. Extreme views appear to be logical extensions of principles that everyone more or less shares, and extremists gain a larger influence than their numbers merit.”

The Bauerlein hypothesis projected that this “groupthink” environment would produce a more one-sided academy, with extremist voices becoming more prevalent. Three recent academic conferences, on topics of obvious academic and national import, confirm the point.

The first such gathering, which occurred a few weeks ago at NYU’s Ewen Academic Freedom Center, examined academic freedom in contemporary America. In the post-9/11 world, the topic was certainly timely, although differing viewpoints exist on whether a serious threat to academic freedom exists from outside the academy. Moreover, in an era of academic mobbing, in which by almost any standards most humanities and some social science departments are becoming more one-sided ideologically and pedagogically, any serious conference on academic freedom would surely examine whether the majority in the academy is truly committed to fostering dissenting points of view.

The NYU conference, however, wasn’t interested in viewpoints that challenged prevailing academic orthodoxy. The conference led off with remarks from Alison Bernstein, a Ford Foundation vice president and co-author of Melting Pots and Rainbow Nations, which one reviewer gushingly described as “nothing less than a new feminist approach to global issues.” At Ford, Bernstein has developed a program called “Difficult Dialogues: Promoting Academic Freedom and Pluralism on Campus.” The “model” for this initiative? The Ford Foundation’s earlier “Campus Diversity Initiative,” a program implemented most aggressively by the “diversity”-obsessed AAC&U. Many non-academics, I suspect, would wonder about the relationship between protecting academic freedom and promoting a “diversity” agenda. But for the academic majority that Bernstein personifies, the two causes are very much interlinked: the threat to the academic majority’s “diversity” agenda, and therefore by extension “academic freedom,” comes almost exclusively from outside critics of the academy.

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